Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Being Code-Literate vs. Being a Good Programmer...

There's an interesting article in the New York Times today focusing on the rising number of people who are seeking to learn web programming skills.

According to the Computing Research Association, enrollment in computer science degree programs rose 10 percent in 2010. That number has been steadily climbing since 2007, after a six-year decline in the aftermath of the dot-com bust. Overall, there is a growing national trend among college students towards more technical fields.

The reasons seem obvious. As the first generation of "digital natives" reach adulthood and enter the workforce, they view Internet fluency as being as essential as speaking English. To them, it's not a skill-set that ought to be limited to engineers. As one of the founders of Codecademy put it, "They don't just want to use the Web; they want to understand how it works". Peter Harsha, director of government affairs at the Computing Research Association is quoted as saying, "To be successful in the modern world, regardless of your occupation, requires a fluency in computers... It is more than knowing how to use Word or Excel but how to use a computer to solve problems."

All of which is very true, but also very obvious. The article unfortunately veers off into describing the gold-rush taking place among businesses seeking to capitalize on this trend by offering web programming classes.

What would have been more helpful, instead, would have been to explore deeper into the distinction between being code-literate versus being a good programmer. As Mr. Sims from Codecademy admitted, "We know that we're not going to turn the 99 percent of people interested in learning to code into the 1 percent who are really good at it".

That's quite an admission. How important is it that someone have true programming skills rather than simply have code literacy? Certainly, in this Internet Age, everyone ought to be code literate to some extent, and to a far greater extent than most people are now. However, the difference between the two is huge. To draw an anology, it's like questioning the distinction between someone who knows the name of the U.S. president versus someone who makes their living as a paid political consultant. Yes, we should all increase our level of political knowledge in the interests of being good participatory citizens. But that's a far cry from rightfully claiming practical skills in the field.

As someone who teaches computer programming, I know I'm biased. But one of the most irksome things we faculty encounter are incoming freshmen who enroll in the Intro to Programming class because they figure that they like to email and play on Facebook so why not take a class on such things - only to quickly grow dismayed upon discovering that programming means writing code! We design according to object-oriented principles. We execute loop iterations. We engineer recursive algorithms. And we do it on a blackboard. Facebook is very very far away.

Being a good programmer is a true skill, increasingly invaluable. It means having the rare ability to take a blank canvas and create - make real - anything your imagination can conjure up.

Two hours of HTML training does not suffice. In the context of literacy, it's definitely better than nothing, but everyone should be careful not to conflate the two.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Who Will Control the Internet's Master Switch?

"Every age thinks it's the modern age, but this one really is". (Tom Stoppard, 1876)

Ever since it's most nascent stages, the Internet has been touted as a game-changer; exceptional; outside of history. Tim Wu directly contradicts those claims in his book, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires.

Wu's argument is two-fold. First, he asserts that there is an historical cycle characterizing all new information technologies:

  1. Invention leads to Industry

  2. Industry consolidates into Empire (often with State support)

  3. Empire comes under assault; monopoly is broken

  4. The lure of size and scale that led to the original Empire spawns a new generation again.
This cycle, he says, describes what happened with everything from telephone to radio to television to film. Somebody's hobby became somebody else's industry. Most importantly, each new invention progressed from a freely accessible channel to one strictly controlled for reasons of commerce by a single corporation or cartel.


Why is this important? Without delving into fear-mongering or conspiracy theories, Wu highlights repeatedly that information technology is a form of social ordering. In line with the literature on walled gardens and Jonathan Zittrain's seminal book, The Future of the Internet - And How to Stop It, the fear is that the Internet is becoming less free and more controlled for commercial purposes. "Just as you are what you eat, how and what you think depends on what information you are exposed to". In America, we value having a free marketplace of ideas, yet "the shape or even existence of any such marketplace depends far less on our abstract values than on the structure of the communications and culture industries... their structure determines who gets heard".

And that's what this is really about: freedom vs. control.

So through this lens, the second part of Wu's argument is to map out what he sees as the Primary Conflict - between the Open vs. the Closed; between Decentralized vs. Consolidated visions of a proper order.

He spends a good 50 pages or so demonizing Apple for being the embodiment of The Centralizers. This group - including examples of AT&T, Hollywood, and the Apple of Steve Jobs - seeks to design everything for consumption. In order to provide "the Best of Everything", they push a type of cultural surrogacy, mass conformity, and a partnership mentality.

On the other hand, the Openness Movement - including Google, the Internet itself, and the Apple of Steve Wozniak - seeks to design everything for creation. They offer less polish and perfection, but more choice, and seek to promote individual expression and minimize the "need for permission".

I couldn't agree more. The Internet is a type of mass filter, and who gets to decide in what ways information will and won't be accessible is extremely consequential, and should indeed be placed in the context of social control. As Wu states, "before any question of free speech comes the question of 'who controls the Master Switch'".

This is one of the most important conflicts of our time.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Yet Another #StopKONY Post...

In case you've been living under a rock for the past two weeks, a video profiling Joseph Kony - a rebel warlord from Uganda who's been on a murderous rampage for the last 20 years - has become the single most viral video in the history of cyberspace.

Here it is...

The first stage of the viral process was characterized by legions of social media users, inspired by the video, sharing links and posting statuses to raise general awareness about Kony.

The second stage was a traditional media critique of the video, reporting on the inaccuracies of some of the video's details and highlighting the journalistic flaws and financial interests of its creators. Others began arguing that the video was promoting slacktivism - the idea that tweeting or sharing on social networks will somehow solve the problem, sucking away people's motivation from doing more.

Finally, a third stage has most recently arisen whereby another wave of social media users is expressing its cynicism about the entire issue. As one Twitter user put it, "One more week and everyone will forget about kony2012". Some have even wondered aloud if KONY 2012 was a scam.

I'm going to take this opportunity, for once, to NOT play devil's advocate. Why the need for such cynicism?

Dan Pallotta from the Harvard Business Review hit the nail on the head with his critique of the critics. It's absurd that the organization that produced the video, Invisible Children, is being criticized for 1) not also highlighting more bad guys in Uganda, 2) not injecting the fact that Kony's forces are rather weakened at the moment in Congo, 3) spending too much money raising awareness about Kony instead of diverting it towards other things, and 4) making it harder to capture Kony by spotlighting him.

Let's get a few things straight. No one - not a single voice on the planet right now - is actually questioning whether the actions the video attributes to Joseph Kony are true. They are, and that's indisputable. Also, the criticisms being thrown at Invisible Children are akin to giving someone who just donated to charity a hard time because they should have written a bigger check. Or criticizing someone who just helped an old lady cross the street for not moving fast enough. It's ludicrous. Invisible Children made it their mission to raise awareness about a still-active war criminal, and they've wildly succeeded. Good for them. We should all be so fortunate in our lifetimes to do something as meaningful.

And being an armchair critic doesn't qualify.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Is Pinterest Legal?

If you haven't heard of it yet, you will. The latest Internet craze centers on Pinterest - a digital bulletin board site that allows users to "pin" various images from around the Web onto their own personal page. What it's generally used for is to share arts-and-crafts ideas.

As soon as The Nerfherder Gal was spending her usual nightly Facebook time on Pinterest instead, for hours on end, that's when I realized it had hit the big time.

But, here's something for all of you Pinterest addicts to consider... the website itself might not be legal.

Consider the basic idea at the heart of the website - to enable users to easily copy photos from around the Web and re-post them onto Pinterest. Without permission. Without attribution. Just taking someone else's content and using it at will.

Is that not the exact definition of copyright infringement?

Well, it isn't exactly that simple. First of all, the images displayed on Pinterest tend to be thumbnails - something that even Google does, and is considered legal fair use. Sometimes. Second, Pinterest does let content owners opt-out of allowing their photos to be pinned. But the Web's an awfully big place, and all photos can still be copied without permission by default.

Nevertheless, all users of the site ought to at least exercise some caution. One lawyer named Kirsten, who is (or was) a regular Pinterest user, recently deleted her account out of fear of the legal consequences.

She highlighted three things in her narrative. First, the Pinterest Terms of Use state that members are solely responsible for what they pin and repin, and that they must have explicit permission from the owner to post everything. Truthfully, no one using the site does this.

Second, the Terms of Use state in all caps:


So should any copyright lawsuits arise, you're on the hook; not the website.

Third, the cost of any legal fees also falls on backs of users. Again, the Terms of Service state:

You agree to defend, indemnify, and hold Cold Brew Labs, its officers, directors, employees and agents, harmless from and against any claims, liabilities, damages, losses, and expenses, including, without limitation, reasonable legal and accounting fees, arising out of or in any way connected with (i) your access to or use of the Site, Application, Services or Site Content, (ii) your Member Content, or (iii) your violation of these Terms.

So basically, if the owner of a picture you pinned sues you for copyright infringement, not only do you have to pay for your lawyer and any subsequent charges, but also for Pinterest's lawyer and subsequent charges.

It's interesting that, when faced with these copyright questions, many Pinterest users are putting forth the same defensive arguments that we've seen in the realm of digital music piracy - "It shouldn't be illegal since, rather than stealing, I'm actually driving traffic to the photographer's or merchant's website", or the ever-amusing, "How can it be illegal when it's so easy to do, and a website lets me do it?".

Many observers have been looking to music piracy as a reference point in order to gauge Pinterest's legal fate. But don't be surprised if the reverse ultimate holds true - that the fate of Pinterest in the courts will have a lasting effect on the music piracy issue instead.

Monday, March 05, 2012

How Twitter Helps Authoritarian Governments...

During last year's Arab Spring - which saw the demise of authoritarian governments in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen, as well as mass protest movements in Bahrain, Syria, and other countries - the Western world was quick to notice the role of the Internet in fostering such uprisings. Journalist Andrew Sullivan declared, "The revolution will be Twittered". This followed a longer trend of philosophical thought that the Internet would be a democratizing force in the world against which totalitarian regimes stood little chance.

But if this is the case, how do you explain that China and Iran are as stable and repressive as ever? Is the hype about the Internet as a pro-democratic force overblown?

Evgeny Morozov answers, decidedly, yes. In his book, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, he argues that we're all being naive in thinking that if we simply let the Internet run wild and unfettered, somehow authoritarian governments will be magically toppled. He points out that, on the contrary, these governments are becoming quite effective at using the Internet to suppress free speech, hone their surveillance techniques, disseminate propaganda, and pacify their populations.

In this context, the Internet is actually a helpful tool for such regimes. His term of the "Net Delusion" refers to 1) a flawed set of cyber-utopian assumptions about how online communication is emancipatory by nature, and 2) a flawed methodology - labeled Internet-centrism - which prioritizes the tool over the environment. What results is a Western world believing so much in technology as a force for positive change that it dangerously overlooks other avenues for supporting dissidents and toppling authoritarian regimes, which would ultimately be far more effective.

As Morozov says, "Tweets don't topple governments; people do".

Examples abound. Twitter's coming-of-age moment came during the Iranian Green Movement in 2009, when it was lauded for mobilizing and organizing mass protests. However, in retrospect, this was largely overhyped. Only 19,2235 Twitter accounts were registered in Iran on the eve of the Green Movement, which is exactly 0.027 percent of the population. It's quite hard to argue that Twitter was so instrumental if virtually no Iranians were using it. Instead, it's more likely that the bulk of Twitter activity at the time consisted of outsiders raising global awareness. One Al-Jazeera study could only confirm 60 active Twitter accounts in Tehran at the time, and that number fell to six once the authorities began their crackdown.

Regardless of the hype, the Iranian government's response was nevertheless instructive. A high-level cybercrime team was formed, tasked with seeking out any "insults or lies" on websites, and identifying and arresting those disseminating such "false information". Meanwhile, the police began scouring social media sites like Facebook and YouTube for photos and videos of the protesters, re-publishing them on Iranian media, asking the public for help in identifying the perpetrators. Ahmadinejad's supporters also posted a few videos of their own online, demonizing the protesters. Additionally, the police went searching through Facebook profiles and email addresses of Iranians living abroad, sending them threatening messages not to support the Green Movement unless they wanted to hurt their relatives back in Iran. Finally, the government turned to text-messaging, warning Iranians to stay away from street protests...

Dear citizen, according to received information, you have been influenced by the destabilizing propaganda which the media affiliated with foreign countries have been disseminating. In case of any illegal action and contact with the foreign media, you will be charged as a criminal consistent with the Islamic Punishment Act and dealt with by the Judiciary.

Morozov is right that the value of Internet technology as a democratizing force is often over-hyped, yet it's possible that he's simultaneously under-hyping it as well. Yes, it's just a tool - one among many - for political dissidents, and real purposive change has to come from actions on the ground. However, in my opinion, he overstates its dangers. It's quite often benign on both fronts - the positive and the negative - and not exceedingly relevant as a force for either democracy or for authoritarianism.